Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is sending a message that he -- not Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas -- is in charge of peace talks with Israel, countering moves to sideline him and throwing a second Palestinian-Israeli summit into confusion.
The dispute Tuesday underlined the internal Palestinian power struggle between Arafat and Abbas, whom Arafat grudgingly appointed under international pressure, as efforts to move forward on a new peace plan intensified.
Arafat used the date of the second meeting between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as his vehicle. First, Palestinians called off yesterday's meeting until Arafat had a chance to discuss Israeli proposals with the PLO executive, which he chairs.
After the PLO executive meeting Tuesday evening, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the Abbas-Sharon meeting would take place yesterday as planned.
Then it was Israel's turn to say no.
Sharon aide Raanan Gissin said that there was to be no meeting yesterday.
Israel Radio reported that the summit would take place today, but officials in Sharon's office said no date has been set and made no further comment.
A senior member of the PLO executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained that the jockeying for position was Arafat's way of telling the US, Israel and Abbas that Arafat makes the decisions over negotiations with Israel, using the PLO executive to make the point.
Abbas took office April 30 under a new law that gives the PLO executive the right of approval over negotiating steps with Israel. Arafat controls the PLO body, where Abbas is his deputy.
Arafat has been fighting a rear-guard action to limit Abbas' powers, objecting to the makeup of his Cabinet and inserting many of his stalwarts. He retains control of most of the Palestinian security forces and has kept for himself the final word over peace moves.
This counters the Israeli and US intentions to sideline Arafat, charging that he is tainted with terrorism and had led his Palestinian Authority into corruption and inefficiency.
In an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz, Abbas spoke out in favor of Arafat. "Arafat is the elected president of the Palestinian Authority and should not be isolated," he said, calling on Israel to release Arafat from a virtual house arrest in his West Bank headquarters.
Sharon and Abbas met on May 17, the first Israeli-Palestinian summit meeting since the violence erupted in September 2000. No agreements emerged.
Meanwhile, officials are arranging a three-way summit with US President George W. Bush, Sharon and Abbas early next month, possibly in Jordan.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Tuesday that concrete results could be expected from the summit.
"The President would not bother coming all the way out here to leave without a decision of some kind," Shalom told Israel TV.
Abed Rabbo said he hoped the trilateral summit would result in implementation of the peace plan, called the "road map."
The plan is sponsored by the so-called "Quartet" -- the US, EU, UN and Russia. It calls for a halt to nearly 32 months of bloody Palestinian-Israeli violence and leads to a full Palestinian state in 2005.
Israel conditionally accepted the plan on Sunday, a month after the Palestinians approved the formula and insisted that the plan be implemented unchanged.